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Cottages in Norfolk and Cornwall feature in this week’s property picks
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Cottages in Norfolk and Cornwall feature in this week’s property picks
I don’t think so … a Thornhill taste tester is unimpressed. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian
Teenagers. They don’t like anything, do they? We sent a truckload of Christmas biscuits up to Matthew Burton and his charges at Thornhill Community Academy, to see what pupils of Channel 4′s Educating Yorkshire would make of this year’s festive offerings. There were issues with glitter, dubious comparisons (“Keith Lemon in biscuit form”) and the occasional outbreak of hysteria: “It’s BURNING MY TONGUE”. These biscuits have been put through their paces.
Our panel generously looked past the hefty price tag on these festive delights and were effusive in their praise (apart from one realist who thought “they should be a tenner at most”). Reviews ranged from “I love the tin. They might have turned my teeth green, but it’s absolutely worth it!” and “Biscuits dipped in Christmas”, to “Tooth-breakingly tasty”. Top of the shop.
Even at half the price of the winning treats, these beautiful biscuits didn’t win everyone over. One reviewer’s boast of “Call me Lord Sugar, but I can’t see them selling at that price” echoed the thoughts of many. There were glitter-based gripes: “Covered my hands in glitter” and “damned glitter gets everywhere” being two of the many laments. One unimpressed punter claimed they “look heavenly, but taste deadly”.
Biscuiteers, Fudge’s stem gingers and Waitrose’s stollen bites
A strong test, with one particularly excitable review of the biscuits: “TASTY! I WANT A LIFETIME SUPPLY!” They were considered very good value for money. “I’d buy these for my grandma” was a typical endorsement. One reviewer – who gave the biscuits top marks across the board was succinct: “Tastes like fire”. A hot topic, no doubt.
These were described as “Keith Lemon in biscuit form”, and although they were roundly enjoyed, were said to be “more like white chocolate than lemon”. One particularly delighted reviewer claimed that “they taste like a lemon, chocolate and butter party in my mouth”. A favourite among the panel.
Bisquites, Sainsburys, Churchills, Fortnum and Mason
The ginger content seemed a contentious factor. One disgusted reviewer screamed, “I DO NOT WANT TO CHEW ON GINGER”, and was somewhat upset that the taste had lingered: “It is stuck in my teeth and it’s BURNING MY TONGUE.” After a medical showed no permanent damage, less hysterical reviews followed: “very ginger and proud” and “tastes like a ginger biscuit with chewing gum inside”.
: “tasting like chewing gum with a horrible aftertaste” didn’t do much to mitigate the slightly better presentation – “they look better than they taste” – of the florentines. A poor showing for this item, with one particularly vicious reviewer claiming that it “looks like frozen sick and tastes like something unpleasant”.
“The tin makes me feel like I’m at my grandma’s house” was the first lament about these delights, but the reviews improved from there onwards. Although one said they were “a bit plain”, they were otherwise described as “choc full of loveliness”, and “crispy, chocolatey and crave-starting. I NEED MORE!” Most bizarrely, one reviewer claimed they would “go well with a garlic swirl cheese”.
Fortnum and Mason’s finest couldn’t impress Thornhill’s taste testers. Comments such as “nothing new”, “nowt special” and “like shortbread with cranberries in” (which I think was the point) couldn’t push these treats into the higher echelons of the scoring.
Waitrose stollen bites, £3
Not a good run out for the ever divisive stollen bites. They were described as “like acid on my tongue”, “nasty”, and one reviewer’s mind wandered to the extent that her thoughts grew somewhat macabre: “I could use these to poison my brother,” she exclaimed.
garden writer, lecturer, broadcaster and plantsman
Purely practical A little electric greenhouse heater with a thermostat
– they’re quite cheap (£30 from Crocus) – to protect my scented rhododendron
collection and anything else in the porch that’s not quite hardy. The
important thing is that it blows warm air around to keep down humidity,
which is a killer under glass in the winter.
In my dreams I’d like to organise but have someone else pay for a tour
of the wildflower-rich regions of the world – the Namaqualand desert,
Colorado mountains, the Croatian meadows – to gather planting inspiration
for the garden.
Writer, lecturer and garden designer
Purely practical All gardeners need gloves, and my cosy new favourites
for winter are the Christmas red All Seasons One from Joe’s Garden Gloves –
£6.99 is a price that will frighten no one.
In my dreams What I want more than anything is another greenhouse, a
bespoke one in hardwood, simple and plain, that will look good, silver with
age and be excellent for growing. Henry Prudden makes them slowly and
carefully to order. It might cost around £20,000.
Garden designer and Chelsea gold medallist
Purely practical Far too much terracotta is decorated or rather brash,
and it’s quite difficult to find small pots. Italian Terrace does a lovely
simple one a bit deeper than a pan called Catino Liscio. I’d have three of
the 40cm ones (£75 each), filled with a pelargonium such as sidoides, for
the middle of the table instead of leaving this big chunk of wood bare all
In my dreams My favourite modern furniture is by Paola Lenti. They’ve
got a range of very long loungers called Surf. I’d get the fixed ones, not
with a mechanism, probably in grey because I live in black barn. They do
zingy orange or green for somewhere urban (or if I turned into Andy Sturgeon
overnight). (From £2,950).
Garden writer, cake baker, singer, washboard player, mum
Purely practical I’ve just got an oscillating hoe (£34.50) from
Quickcrop and I really like it. The rounded design helps prevent damage to
other plants but its very sharp blade, which is on a pivot, slices under the
soil and cuts through the roots of weeds. It’s easy to use and effective.
In my dreams If we’re talking fantasy indulgence, I have a veranda
outside my back door and have always loved the idea of having a wooden
swinging chair on it — specifically the Tranquillity Oak Slat Back swing
seat from Sitting Spiritually (£1,379 to £2,459).
Purely practical I do lots of my photography from ladders, the top of
walls, rooftops or leaning out of dodgy windows. A Japanese Kyatatsu tripod
ladder with a platform top would definitely help me at work – and with tree
pruning too (£189 to £329).
In my dreams We now have a pretty big garden but it’s a flat green
space, so we’re getting ideas about earth-moving, creating water features
and undulations. I recently did a shoot at a garden that had a Chinese
Siromer tractor. It was incredible value (from £5,250 flat-pack), and built
to repair “in the field”.
Plant biologist and garden writer
Purely practical My top useful idea is one of those new, very quiet but
expensive shredders that just grind hedge prunings into mulch or raw
material for the compost heap. Bosch makes the best ones; I’d go for the AXT
25 TC Turbine Cut Shredder (£429.99).
In my dreams A veggie day at River Cottage HQ: lots of useful practical
sessions, a tour of the garden, a ride on the tractor, plus a two-course
lunch. Costs a fortune (£230) but who cares?
Garden writer, cook, broadcaster and teacher
Purely practical I’m increasingly obsessed with taking cuttings of
really long performing, not readily available shrubs, particularly with
scent – for example, daturas and daphnes, and elegant and unusual hydrangeas
(not for scent but their six-month presence in the garden). I’d love a
Hotbox Growbox propagation cabinet (£800.48) with fogging system.
In my dreams I want one of the biggest Le Creuset casseroles in
turquoise (Teal) or green (Fennel). They are brilliant at this time of year
to put in a slow oven and make delicious gratins, soups and stews, and go on
being brilliant 20 years on. I can never quite bring myself to buy one – a
bit extravagant at £195.
Garden writer, lecturer, founder of the Chelsea Fringe Festival
Purely practical There’s a lovely new gift pack Nutscene does, which
has four balls of twine in different colours and a little pair of retro
flower snippers in a cardboard box (£13.50). I like the fact that it’s a
really old company and string is all they’ve ever done. It’s the kind of
company we’ve lost so many of and I think we should support them.
In my dreams I nearly bought my fantasy present recently at the Het Loo
(royal palace) gift shop in Holland. It was a massive tulipière with lots of
holes in it. You could fill it with cheap supermarket flowers and it would
be incredible to have as a centrepiece on the dining table. I’ve always
wanted one but it was 2ft tall and I only had hand luggage.
Nurseryman, broadcaster and writer
Purely practical Fencing pins are excellent for holding plants up,
particularly asparagus, which are so shaggy and big. They are iron or steel
rods that have little u-shaped bends at top; the police use them at crime
scenes to hold the tape. I buy them from farm shops and Army surplus but you
can also get them online (about £17.99 for 10).
In my dreams Heather Jansch makes driftwood sculptures; they have her
horses at the Eden Project. Lots of people use driftwood but she is the
absolute queen of capturing movement. I’d have a little herd of horses in
the border, looking magnificent, back lit with ornamental grasses (from
£35,000 each, life-size). ]
Last order dates for Christmas delivery are stated in each case.
Bosch AXT 25 TC Turbine Cut Shredder (Amazon;
9.30am, Dec 24)
Catino Liscio (01284 789666; Italian
Terrace; Dec 9).
Fencing pins (01737 783101; Sitebox;
Greenhouse and conservatory heater (0844 557 2233; Crocus;
Heather Jansch driftwood horse sculptures (07775 840513; Heather
Jansch; to order)
Henry Prudden (07796 143565; email@example.com; to order)
Hotbox Growbox (01430 444040; Hotbox
World; Dec 10)
Japanese Kyatatsu ladder (0845 474 1041; Niwaki;
Le Creuset 30cm diameter casserole (0800 37 37 92; Le
Creuset; Dec 20)
Nutscene giftbox (01307 468589; Nutscene;
Oscillating hoe (01788 298795; Quick
Crop; Dec 18)
Paola Lenti Surf loungers (020 8421 1779; Chaplins;
eight to 10 weeks)
River Cottage Veg Cookery course (01297 630300; River
Cottage; instant e-confirmation)
Siromer flat-pack tractor (01253 799029; Siromer;
All Seasons One garden gloves (0115 7143533; Joe’s
Garden; Dec 20)
Tranquillity Oak Slat Back swing seat (01297 443084; Sitting
Spiritually; to order)
gardeners are giftzillas. We know what we want and are apt to buy it for
ourselves, just before Christmas. And it’s not the matching mug,
biscuit-cum-seed tin and tool holster, pointlessly titivated with pretty
pink rose sprigs. Unlike “civilians” who divorce over an electric
toothbrush, we genuinely love unwrapping something useful.
Cool tools, for instance. New from De Wit is the Sprake (£64.99), a
long-handled Terminator with jagged fused tines. It tears through pond weed,
saplings and brambles as well as lawn moss. Meanwhile, you could coiffe a
mile of box without aches and sweaty palms using Fiskars Quantum hedge
shears (£79.99), part of a new range that won a design prize for its
shock-absorbing cork handles and non-stick blades.
Fiskars Quantum shears
Another obvious shopping-for opportunity is the shed. Your growing tool
collection will need alphabetising, after all. The Breffo Spiderpodium is a
gadget grip meant for smartphones and tablets that’ll hug tool handles too,
with two of its eight arms left free to hang them up with (£14.95 or
£24.95). Then protect your armoury with a battery-operated Yale stand-alone
shed alarm. You can arm it from a distance and it’s simple to install; just
take it out of the packet (£25.99).
Keen gardeners tend to be keen gardening readers too, so it’s hard to surprise
them with ingenious inventions. But here are three to try in the pot
department. CowPots are made by an American dairy farmer who turns his
slurry into biodegradable seedling cells that promote stronger root growth
(£5). The Rootcup is another propagating aid, a funnel-lidded beaker that
protects a cutting’s roots from light, holds the leaves above the water and
stops evaporation so you don’t have to top it up all the time (£5).
Forgetful waterers might also appreciate Boskke’s groovy transparent Cube
planter, a reservoir with a Rachel Whiteread-ish “negative space” plant pot
sunk into the top (£19.95 to £44.95).
Watering cans are one of the biggest victims of random prettification, whereas
all we want is one that will actually fit under the tap – like Koziol’s
plastic open-topped Camilla. It has a swoopy contemporary shape and the new
screaming pink is hard to lose in the garden (£13.75).
Even more irresistibly functional is Ultimate Duck Tape (£8.49), a waterproof
version launched this year that makes good tree ties and mends holes in
greenhouses – the ultimate all-rounder.
Genus claims to be the first performance clothing designed specifically for
gardeners who don’t want to look like Mr McGregor. Adapted from hi-tech
sportswear, stab-proof pockets mean you can carry secateurs without fear of
impalement. Trousers with accommodating stretch, as well as padded knees and
bums, are £95, jerseys are £49 and gilets £89.
For those who tend more towards the boho-rural, there are some super-warm
stompy boots made in mountaineering leather by Trabert (£380), with
felt-lined nubuck feet and grey felt legs. Mmmm.
If gardening kit seems too personal a gift, indoor problem-solvers might work.
The Oak and Rope Company’s boot jack (£75) is a simple solution to soggy
sock syndrome, wide enough to stand on and still leave one half clean for
when you tug off the other boot. And what would Christmas be without soap on
a rope? Superdrug’s Big Ears looky likey is particularly suitable in the
year the RHS invited gnomes into the Chelsea Flower Show (£3). It might also
persuade the kids to wash their mitts.
Oak and Rope boot jack
Winter isn’t generally a great time to lure children into gardening, except
that you can sow the Venus Flytrap seeds from the Bug Eating Plants kit
(£9.99) all year round, especially with the aid of the Little Gardener’s My
First Mini Greenhouse (£11.99). Give What You Grow plant potters –
pretend-home-made labels but much jollier – are good value at £1.95 for
Enjoy your Christmas shopping.
Last order dates for Christmas delivery are stated in each case.
Boskke cube planter (Boskke;
Breffo Spiderpodium (0844 800846; Breffo;
Bug-eating Plants kit (08451 262324; Gift
Republic; Dec 20)
CowPots (01273 492793; Urban
Allotments; Dec 15)
Fiskars Quantum HS102 Hedge Shear (Amazon;
9.30am, Dec 24)
Genus (01285 740004; Genus;
Give What You Grow plant potters (020 7627 6767; Talking
Tables; Dec 17)
Koziol Camilla 2L watering can (01423 858 111; Koziol
Shop; Dec 23)
Little Gardener’s My First Mini Greenhouse (0845 658 9147;
Johnsons Seeds; Dec 13)
Sprake (0844 557 2233; Crocus;
The Oak and Rope Company boot jack (07951 742265; Oak
and Rope Company; Dec 6 bespoke, Dec 19 standard)
Trabert ladies’ felt boot (0800 096 0938; Manufactum;
Ultimate Duck Tape (Amazon;
9.30am, Dec 24)
Yale Motion Detector Alarm (Amazon;
9.30am, Dec 24)
We roundup the latest sector news, including recipients of the Impact Economy Innovations Fund in East and Southeast Asia Photograph: Alamy
Welcome to today’s Guardian Social Enterprise Network daily digest. Our space to tell you the latest news, advice and analysis from the sector.
• Alongside this project we are running an open thread on why you choose to buy social enterprise products. At the end of the month the best comment will be awarded a Christmas hamper full of social gifts donated by the social enterprises we’ve chosen to feature. From today follow our hashtag #socentxmas for updates.
• Likewise, Peter Holbrook, chief executive of Social Enterprise UK, today discussed the rise of social enterprise at Christmas. He stated that whilst retailers have seen a drop in sales in recent years, research shows that social enterprises are trading more and more all year round.
• Also on the network, Nick Temple, director of business at Social Enterprise UK, asks what social enterprises can learn from the private sector. He argues that in hindsight it is easy to see how the social enterprise movement neglected relationships with the private sector in its former years.
• In other news, Social Enterprise Buzz reported that the Rockefeller Foundation, in partnership with Asia Community Ventures, have announced recipients of the Impact Economy Innovations Fund in East and Southeast Asia, a $400,000 grant program to allow some of the impact economy’s leaders to accelerate market driven solutions.
• Continuing on from Social Enterprise UK’s #buysocial campaign, Forbes contributor Elaine Pofeldt discusses how consumers are growing more socially conscious, particularly by supporting local retailers. Tell us why you choose to buy social in our open thread.
If there’s another story or event you’d like us to mention – or if you’d like to share your thoughts on any of the social enterprise issues in the news today – please get in touch by leaving a comment below the line or tweeting us at @GuardianSocEnt.
Long run? Have another mince pie. You deserve it. Photograph: Pick and Mix Images/Alamy
With only a few months left until the Seville marathon (which is now sold out – unsurprisingly given it gets great reviews from runners and started at an astonishing reasonable €30) I’m back in training after my easier week in Ethiopia, which you can read all about here. With the travel and altitude, I “only” ran about 30-odd miles that week, and my legs felt the benefits of that at the weekend. My track session was sprightlier than usual on Saturday and my Sunday long run (16 miles yesterday) didn’t feel nearly as much of a slog as usual. For those slogging their way through a marathon schedule, I do thoroughly recommend a proper rest now and again. It turns out that it makes everything feel better (or hurt less, anyway).
My long run on Sunday morning came after a Saturday night spent at my running club Christmas Ball – a lovely event not least as it offers the opportunity to see what your running friends look like when wearing clothes that aren’t made of high-vis lycra. Plus I even won an award, which provides a lovely end (well, it’s December now) to my running year. Just one more cross-country race to go next weekend and then it’s nothing but increasingly long runs and hard pre-marathon training. Though on the plus side, I think that gives me a licence to eat non-stop mince pies …
Complications of a clematis in pots
Patricia Dawson has a problem with a Clematis alpina ‘Foxy’ that she is
growing up a bamboo wigwam in a pot. She sent me a picture, taken in the
late summer, which showed that almost all its leaves had gone completely
brown and dry. It has never flowered, she says. The first year she had it
(2012) it didn’t flower and went brown. She assumed it had clematis wilt and
cut it right down, realising that since ‘Foxy’ flowers on the previous
year’s growth, this would mean that if it regrew it wouldn’t perform in 2013
either. The all-new growth browned this year too, however, and she wants to
know what to do now. I will give my opinion, but not before flannelling on a
bit about what I see as the perils of growing clematis in containers.
It is generally reckoned that clematis is a good subject for growing in pots,
trained up a neat wigwam. Magazines are littered with pictures of plants
flowering their socks off from head to toe, or perhaps more accurately toe
to head. Numerous varieties are suitable and there is a lot of helpful
information provided by growers such as award-winning Raymond Evison
(raymondevisonclematis.com), who has a list of plants suitable for container
Clematis in pots are not easy, however. gardeners have a terrible tendency to
grow them in containers that are too small (they should be at least 45cm x
45cm). They also use unsuitable compost (“multipurpose” that dries out too
quickly and is difficult to re-wet, rather than a rich, garden-soil
“imitation” of John Innes No 3 with added grit and leafy compost), and grow
them in exposed situations (clematis grow naturally in among other plants,
and don’t appreciate all-day blistering sun). Plastic containers are also a
no-no. Apart from their light weight (rendering plants on supports
top-heavy), they conduct heat/cold too well. Clay pots dry out quickly.
Glazed earthenware is better, wooden tubs are best.
Also to be taken into account is that dreadful affliction the Gardener’s
Finger, which has to be kept on the button during the growing season, but
tends to wander off it towards the end of the summer, so that plants,
especially those in containers that are not “showy”, can get missed in the
So, finally, my verdict on Patricia’s clematis: this clematis did not flower
in 2012 (its first year in her garden) because it had, I feel sure, been cut
down by the growers for convenience before it was sold to her, and had no
mature flower-bearing growth on it that year. The browning wasn’t/isn’t
clematis wilt, which would have “got” the shoot tips first (and there were
signs of live leaves on her plant’s extremities). My guess is that her plant
was too exposed and lacked water from midsummer onwards, and thus went into
a premature autumn. I suspect that if she looks closely she will see that it
is still alive and that it will in fact flower next year (though maybe not
brilliantly) if she reduces the whole mess a little and repots it into
something slightly larger in a rich compost as described above. Trimmed back
after flowering, subsequent new growth will flower in 2015. By applying a
weekly liquid feed during the growing season, she will also ensure the plant
gets adequate water.
Too blue to be true
Wendy Gale from Ticknall is not the only reader who, fascinated and dismayed
in equal measure, has acquired an extraordinarily highly coloured and
unreal-looking blue moth orchid (Phalaenopsis), and doesn’t know quite what
the future holds for it (bearing in mind that a swift exit into the bin is a
My friend Kate, an out-and-out “indigophile” (yes, I have indeed made that one
up – a suitable word, I feel, for those who simply can’t resist anything
blue), was given one recently by her son, so we took the opportunity to have
a good look at it to see exactly how nature had been so dramatically
tampered with. We found what looks like a small scar just below a node near
the base of each flower stem. I phoned orchid specialists at McBeans in
Sussex (mcbeansorchids.co.uk), always full of helpful advice on matters
Orchidaceae. They were understandably snooty about these garish and
unnatural-coloured aberrations and confirmed my suspicion that they are
indeed injected with bright blue dye.
The future looks distinctly less garish. The smaller flowers at the tip of
each stem on Wendy’s orchid will open rather less blue (as those on Kate’s
plant have started to do), the next batch of flower stems may produce blooms
that are merely slightly grey, and after that they should revert to their
natural colour – white. Phew, I can almost hear Wendy sigh. Thank goodness
Lop till you drop
Do you know where I could purchase a lopper on a single pole? The cutters
should be on the top and the cable or cord runs down the pole, while the
hand-held end has a handle. When turned, the cutters go through the
branches. I have seen pruners similar to this but they were made by a
gardener’s grandfather and the pole was wooden. Being only 5ft 1in tall,
I find the metal extending loppers you have written about in the past are
far too heavy to manage.
Maureen Hicks, Sussex
I have to say that I think that particular non-extending type of pruner (that
my father had, too), is no longer around.
I have indeed written about tree loppers a couple of times before. I have
tried out all sorts, all of them extending, including the type that have to
be used virtually one-handed, with an operating cord/pulley that I find gets
itself in a bit of a twist and swings too easily and rather annoyingly out
of reach at all the wrong moments. I’ve also tried the newer
super-extendable types, operated via a sprung “sleeve” positioned on the
shaft. This is the style I now favour – I would be surprised if this was the
type you find too heavy and hard to use.
Made by Fiskars, my favoured tree pruner is called a Telescopic Universal
Cutter, and costs around £85. It has a powerful cutting head, the angle of
which can be usefully adjusted, and its pole extends to a massive 11ft
(3.4m). When added on to the full reach of an average-sized person, this
enables you to reach high up into trees. There are smaller and less
unwieldy versions of this pruner that you might find a suitable substitute
for your old-style one. Simply called Garden Cutters, you will find them on
fiskars.com. The way the mechanism works enables you to use these pruners
with both hands, which puts far less strain on your arms and shoulders than
do the heavier-headed floppy-cord ones, I find.
Time to move colchicums
The flowers of my pink autumn crocus have now died down. Is this the right
time of year to move them?
It is best not to disturb autumn crocus corms when they are in active growth,
or you risk upsetting them so that they will not flower the following year.
The time to do the job, if you must, is in high summer, around July, once
the leaves have died down completely. Re-plant them in informal groups,
about 3-4in (8-10cm) deep.
Finding a suitable site for colchicums can be a little problematic. They look
very fetching flowering in the naturally dryish soil at the base of trees
and large shrubs, but this sort of place may not, in fact, be sunny enough
in the spring/summer to encourage autumn flowers
Thorny problem? Write to Thorny Problems at firstname.lastname@example.org or
gardening, The Daily Telegraph, 111 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0DT.
Helen Yemm can answer questions only through this column
Mulch prized plants
Protect precious tender plants in the ground with dry mulches (e.g. bracken
under pegged-down fleece) rather than bubble wrap or polythene.
potted up and put in the greenhouse may give you some late extra leaves, and
will sprout earlier next spring.
Ornamental vines and climbing
roses that have dropped their leaves can be pruned back to within
two buds of the main framework of branches.
Lollipop potted bay trees are vulnerable to frost. Drag them under the eaves
if possible. Bubble-wrapping their trunks cuts down the death rate.
tools and accessories from the Telegraph Gardenshop.
Illustration: Benoit Jacques for the Guardian
I’ve had an email from a man named Neil. Neil is a journalist. Like me, he is 50. He also plays banjo in a band, and has teenage sons. He lists several other eerie parallels with my situation, and says that when he reads my column, he feels as if I’ve been peering into his window all week.
Obviously I hope this column resonates with readers, but not that much. It’s not meant to freak people out. For this reason I have found it necessary to blur the identities of all those who appear in it. I trust this precaution will not affect the essential truth of what follows.
So, anyway, my life partner – let’s call him Sean – is bemoaning our domestic situation in his usual amusing but barbed fashion.
“This house is collapsing,” he says. “And you do nothing.”
I point to the hanging light above the kitchen table that I rewired not three weeks ago, and flip the switch at the wall. The light comes on, and I bow slightly from the waist. Then the bulb falls out and lands in the fruit bowl.
Fortunately, Kurt, the youngest of our adopted ex-research chimps, comes into the room and makes the sign for “Help”. I follow him to the sitting room, where I discover that he has taken his mobile phone to pieces. Some people will say this is what happens when you give a chimp a mobile phone, but I disagree. This is what happens when you give a chimp a screwdriver.
I make the sign for “What is the problem?” and Kurt makes the sign for “SIM card” (a rectangle with one corner cut off, drawn in the air). I examine the pile of plastic parts and tiny screws.
“Ah,” I say, “your SIM card has been jammed too far into its slot, and remains irretrievable, even after you have largely dismantled the apparatus.”
Kurt signs “Yes” and bares his teeth in despair.
I remove one more screw, allowing me to slip a fingernail underneath the circuit board. After prying it back, I hand Kurt the screwdriver. With a studied concentration learned from years of poking ant hills with sticks, Kurt prods the SIM card until its edge protrudes from its housing far enough for me to grab it.
“There,” I say, holding it up. Kurt makes the sign for “Nice one”, snatches the SIM card, pops it into his mouth and swallows it.
Unfortunately, Sean comes into the room at this moment. “What is this mess?” he asks.
In reply Kurt emits his distinctive pant-hoot distress call.
This is the problem: since our cleaner left last month, housework has been piecemeal and haphazard. We’ve thought about getting another cleaner, but it’s hard to find help when you have two ex-research chimps at home. (The eldest, Heinz, is currently taking part in a university study examining the effects of alcohol on young primates, which is yielding promising results.)
Early on Monday morning, I am at work in my office when I hear the sound of the vacuum cleaner on the stairs. It’s such a familiar noise that it is some minutes before I remember we do not have a cleaner. I open the door and look down, where I see the top of Sean’s head on the landing below.
I return to my office. I did not marry Sean all those years ago so he could pick up after me. Ours is meant to be an equal partnership. I resolve to speak to him immediately. After further thought, I decide it can wait until he finishes the ironing.
I hope no one finds this story too eerily familiar, because next week I have an appointment with Neil.
There’s no shame in not yet knowing what the right next approach will be.’ Illustration: Mikel Casal for the Guardian
My favourite bit of “meta-advice” – advice on how to deal with the advice that rains down on us from friends, books, columns like this – comes from the novelist Rick Moody. He happened to be talking about writing routines, a topic with which I’m dangerously obsessed, but his wisdom applies to any work, and to relationships and life in general. “The insight I offer you is this,” he told the Writeliving blog. “There’s no one process, and as soon as I imagine some approach to generating work is foolproof, it becomes suddenly worthless to me, and I have to start over.” If, like me, you’re always fiddling with your work systems, reorganising your stuff, testing new tricks for cultivating habits… take comfort. One tactic works for a while, then the self-sabotaging part of your brain gets wise to what you’re doing, and the cycle begins again. The problem isn’t that you’ve failed to find the One True Secret of productivity, happiness or love. The problem is believing you ever might.
Indeed, there’s one view of psychology according to which everything we do to make ourselves miserable – every dysfunctional behaviour, from minor to destructive – begins as an approach that once worked well, often in childhood, then passed its sell-by date. We’re not idiots who choose unhappiness; rather, we develop coping mechanisms that make sense at the time. The psychotherapist Suzanne Lachmann recalls a typical patient whose mother was “so volatile that [the patient] never knew if she’d come home to find all her belongings strewn across the front lawn… As a result, [she] developed her own set of rules to navigate these situations, remaining on guard at all times.” That’s a pro-sanity strategy – until suddenly it isn’t. Unfortunately, we often then respond by pursuing the old approach more vigorously. We’re like drivers stuck in mud, accelerating and wondering why there’s no forward motion.
This trap is what Donald Sull, a London Business School professor, calls “active inertia”. Companies do it, too: time and again, he’s watched established firms respond terribly to industry changes. They don’t adapt nimbly, but nor do they pause to take stock. Instead, “stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.” One case study is Laura Ashley, which thrived in the 60s as an alternative to miniskirts and knee-high boots, but floundered as the demand for stylish workplace womenswear grew. Panicking, the firm hired a string of new bosses – the televangelist Pat Robertson even joined the board – but just drew nearer to collapse. It was only much more recently that it made the changes necessary to move on.
What’s the answer? This may be a rare case in which business school insights are truly useful outside business. Sull recommends “active waiting”. When an old technique’s not working, stay watchful. Contemplate alternative techniques, explore likely scenarios and focus on general readiness. (Can’t figure out where to go with a relationship? That’s OK; for now, try paying attention to exercise and sleep.) There’s no shame in not yet knowing what the right next approach will be, and no single path to unbroken happiness anyway. Take it from a man named Moody.